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  • Cecile Corral

Larger bath accessories lead to bigger sales

When it comes to the ever-expanding category of bath accessories, it seems bigger is better.

It was not long ago that the category meant small decorative bathroom items like tissue box holders, tumblers, toothbrush holders, soap dishes and trays.

But as that market becomes increasingly saturated with players, many major bath products suppliers are exploring growing the category — not only figuratively but literally — with bigger, furniture-like storage units, such as toilet paper stands, shelves, cabinets, magazine racks, cabinetry and hampers, among other items, as a means of differentiating themselves, earning more placement at retail stores and generating higher ticket sales at the point of sale.

"The regular bath accessory business has been growing at a much greater rate than the rest of the bath business, so now manufacturers and retailers are trying to capitalize on that trend by expanding offerings to create higher transactions with more coordination," Frank Scalice, executive vp, New York-based Town & Country Living, told HTT.

Taking a slow and steady approach to large bath accessories is Springs Industries, based in Fort Mill, SC. For the past two years and four home textiles markets it has included caddies, storage units and more under its well-known Palace Collection as extensions to its bath accessories items.

But the company has held steadfast there with little further expansion, due to a lack of commitment from retailers, Nancy Webster, senior vp of creative development, told HTT.

"We received excellent verbal reaction but little placement with our key accounts," she said. "More recently — in the last two markets — we have focused upon the basic bath extensions with wall hardware in metal and resin for complete bath accessorizing with towel bars, towel rings, hooks, cup holders, etc."

Hamden, CT-based upscale, hand-crafted bath accessories supplier Labrazel is also curious about the larger segment. It admits that while its focus has been traditionally on countertop accessories, the company has recently added a few larger items like magazine racks and laundry hampers in a variety of finishes.

"We're always considering new products and new ideas, and we're interested in everything to do with the bath," Cindy Schafer, sales and marketing manager, told HTT.

"I think there's a market for really well-made bath furniture. Just as we have found with countertop accessories, it seems that there is a lot of choice at mid to lower price points but very little is available for the luxury market. Bench seating, laundry hampers and accessory furniture all make sense for the large 'spa' environments that affluent homeowners are creating for themselves," she said.

Also testing the waters is New York-based Croscill Home Fashions, which last fall added three types of furniture pieces — wall cabinets with mirrors, wall shelves with towel hooks and toilet paper stands — to its then-new licensed Portmeirion Botanic Garden collection.

"Furniture is big — but I just don't know right now how big it can get or will get," Carl Legreca, vp, merchandising and marketing for bath products and decorative accessories, told HTT. "We are looking at keeping it growing. But it's still a little too new to tell."

Legreca explained that some of Croscill's bath customers asked the company to offer these pieces, so Croscill obliged with the help of a current manufacturing partner in China that already produces its wooden tissue box holders and waste baskets.

"These products also help bring up the retail sale prices. They raise the average ticket price in bath considerably," Legreca said.

That is one aspect which is attractive to both suppliers and retailers — not surprisingly, these storage pieces carry far heftier price points than their smaller siblings, like the soap dish. For example, Croscill has set its retail price points for larger bath accessories from $49.99 to $79.99.

Some suppliers believe department stores have just recently increased their interest in the category segment in order to grab a piece of the high-price-point action.

But currently only a handful of retailers are giving the category segment a fair amount of exposure. At this early stage, it is mainly the specialty stores and catalogs that are showing the greatest interest in these items.

Scalice noted that because of the success of regular bath accessories, suppliers and retailers now see these new products as vehicles for building the category as a whole, particularly at the specialty and department store levels.

"I don't think any channel is declining in bath accessories. I think the line extensions are just not happening at the mass level to any significant degree," he said.

Rick Lipton, national sales manager for Central Islip, NY-based Creative Bath, argues that the big-box chains that recognize these items as fashionable and not just functional and that have the adequate floor space to showcase the product are giving it the attention it needs to help it flourish.

"They can dedicate the space, show all of the uniqueness in the category and benefit from it," Lipton said. "I believe the mass retailers are probably losing out because they treat the products as plumbing/hardware items."

But due to the nature of these products, Norman Harris, president of New York-based upscale bath supplier Panache, told HTT he is wary of the possible detour they could take at the store level — namely, away from the intended bath department.

"I'm not sure how big the potential market is. I think it would depend on whether or not it stays in the bath department or is passed on to the furniture department or other departments," Harris said. Since it was founded three years ago, Panache has offered large bath accessory products. Currently it has them available in four different design collections — Chesterfield, Milano, Kent and Trianon, all of which include vanity tables, stools, wall shelves, storage cabinets, towel racks and more.

Barbara Wright, director of bath and licensing for Panorama City, CA-based Veratex, told HTT that she has already started dealing with buyers outside the bath category to promote these products.

"For some retailers it does require dealing with different buyers," she said. "We see this category as being open to buyers in the other bath, personal care, bath hardware and storage areas."

Harris said he is already working with what some retailers call their "other bath" buyers for these "alternative products" for the bath department.

Lipton said it's not necessarily a matter of different buyers but different retailers — including home centers and bath fixture stores — that are beckoning these products.

"Creative Bath, because of our extensive product line, has been dealing with the 'functional bath shop' buyer for some time now," Lipton said. "It's an advantage to us because this product is very needy in terms of on-time delivery, and we are keeping in inventory all of the skus that we are selling."

Creative Bath established its Creativewire division 18 months ago, launching it with only about six caddies and two small furniture pieces. Today the line has grown to include much more — a dozen caddies, over-the-door towel racks, storage trays for under the sink, portable tote baskets, mesh waste baskets, vanity stools and seats, organizing shelving units and folding corner shelving systems.

"We are adding daily and reacting to customers' and consumers' needs," Lipton said. For October the company will introduce a new patented lock system for caddies and shelves.

Retail sell-through expectations for the category are mixed but are predominantly high among suppliers.

"It's still early for us to estimate totally [how much larger bath accessories contribute to our total sales] because all of our business is new and growing, but I see it to be somewhere in the 10 percent to 20 percent area, in part because these represent bigger ticket items." Harris said. "They can be a significant contribution to sales, serving as a coordinate to the other items in your line."

Scalice is one of the few who believes the category will add minimal sales to his company's total bath revenue, at least for the near future.

"These category extensions are not very significant in the mass merchant arena, which is where most of our sales come from," he said.

Last year, prices remained fairly flat for Creative Bath's more general product lines in the category, while consumers showed more interest and more willingness to spend extra money on the more fashion-oriented goods, Lipton said.

That makes sense to Wright, who believes that bringing fashion to this area will help keep the price points high.

Veratex currently supplies limited pieces to this category segment under its Island Aire fully coordinated bath ensemble collection. In addition, the company has created a separate classification — bath hardware — for its new toilet brush holder.

Wright said she is optimistic about the future of the category.

"We've just entered into this category, so it is a small percentage of our sales," Wright said. "However, we see this as a growth area. We see this category as wide open, not necessarily as a direct match to bath accessories but as an area that is ready for new ideas."

Creative Bath's Lipton is even more upbeat about the category's future.

"Future growth potential, with the right product geared to the appropriate retailer, could increase annual sales by 20 percent to 25 percent," Lipton said.

He estimated that the market could reach anywhere between $50 million to $100 million in total sales, and it has the potential to double that number in as few as two to three years.

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